CAIRO, Egypt -- Signaling a possible breakthrough in the long-running hostage negotiations, the United Nations said yesterday that it expects the release of another U.S. hostage in Lebanon within 24 hours.
The brief announcement from the U.N.'s Information Center in Beirut, Lebanon, also said that Israel is expected to release several Arab detainees in south Lebanon as a result of intense U.N. negotiating efforts the last several days.
Early today, the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine said that either Jesse Turner or Alann Steen would go free within 24 hours, according to the Associated Press. They delivered the message in a statement to the Beirut newspaper An-Nahar and to a Western news agency.
Lebanese captors still hold five Americans among nine Western hostages, and photographs and communications have been forthcoming in recent days from organizations holding several of the captives.
The real deadlock appeared to have been broken Saturday when Israeli authorities announced that they had received reliable information that one of their five missing servicemen in Lebanon was in fact dead.
Israel has tied any release of the 300 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners it holds in and around the security zone it controls in southern Lebanon to firm information on the fate of Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon the past decade.
Israel released 51 Arab prisoners and the bodies of nine guerrillas last month after receiving confirmation that one of the missing soldiers, Rahamim Alshiekh, an infantryman captured in 1986 while on patrol in southern Lebanon, was dead.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said over the weekend that it had received reliable information that serviceman Yossi Fink, also captured in 1986, is also dead. The two men are believed to have died of combat wounds shortly after their capture, Israeli officials said.
"We weren't ready to move without this information reaching us," Israel's chief hostage coordinator, Uri Lubrani, told Army Radio yesterday. Another Israeli official connected to the hostage talks, Ori Slonim, predicted that there would be "some gestures made within the framework of the initiative."
The U.N. communique was the first from the agency since it began intensive efforts in August to arrange for a swap of Western hostages and Arab detainees in Israeli jails.
It followed several days of intensive efforts by U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar's special envoy, Giandomenico Picco, to break through the logjam that had apparently tied up negotiations since release of British hostage Jack Mann Sept. 24.
News agencies in Beirut reported that Mr. Picco held a marathon meeting in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley Tuesday with representatives of Shiite Muslim kidnappers in an effort to revive the talks.
Mr. Picco is said to have driven on Tuesday to the village of Nabi Sheet, hometown of two senior officials of the Iranian-backed group that is believed to act as an umbrella organization for the hostage holders, Hezbollah, or Party of God.
The U.N. communique said that Mr. Picco had undertaken successful talks in recent days with Abu Abdallah, a representative of the organization holding the hostages.
The U.N. intervention in the hostage dilemma began after the Aug. 8 release of British journalist John McCarthy, who carried with him a letter from the hostage takers requesting the aid of the international organization in ending the long-running drama.
Two other hostages, American Edward Austin Tracy and Mr. Mann, have been released since then. The Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine said Friday that it had agreed to let Mr. Turner see his wife and daughter.
Recent Iranian news reports have suggested that U.S. hostage Joseph J. Cicippio, 61, former comptroller at American University of Beirut, would be the next to be freed.
Lebanese state television quoted unidentified sources as saying the freed hostage would be either Mr. Cicippio or Mr. Turner.